Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rogue Trader: Review (Part 2 of 2)

Imperial Navy vessels engage an enemy. Artist: Zach Graves

Picking up where I left off in my previous post, I recently bought the Rogue Trader core rulebook on DriveThruRPG. I have spent the past several days reading through it and absorbing the rules, and while I have not yet had a chance to play the game, I can conclude that the book looks great and the game looks fun.

My previous post dealt mostly with how cool it is to be a Rogue Trader and his/her crew. This post will provide more of a review of Rogue Trader, both as a rulebook and as a system.

Since I bought the digital copy of the book, I should mention that it's a great scan. The rulebook is 402 pages long, with built-in bookmarks, good OCR, quality pictures, readable tables, and they even have a feature where text that says "see page X" is a link to that page (though that only works on my PC, not on my iPad). My iPad has a bit of trouble opening pages with a tables on them, but I think that's an issue with my iPad running out of memory, and not the PDF's fault.

A Navigator opens her Warp Eye. Artist: Vincent Devault

Knowing that Rogue Trader was created for Warhammer 40,000 fans, who tend to be a beardy bunch, I was afraid that it would be mechanics-heavy, but lacking in flavor text. Or in other terms, I feared it would be all "crunch" without enough "fluff." I previously downloaded the rules for the old Inquisitor game, back when they were available on the Games Workshop website, and it turned out to be less about telling interesting stories with great characters, and more about simulating firefights in exacting detail. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Rogue Trader contains a lot of "fluff," including plenty of background to help players feel comfortable playing their characters.

Throughout the book, whether discussing weapons, psychic powers, spaceships, etc, the book spends more time describing how these things work in-universe than it does providing rules for them. Also, the back of the book has what is essentially a primer on the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with background on the various factions of the Imperium, the galaxy, the Warp, etc. I love seeing useful chunks of text without a statistic or table in sight. Though I can't imagine anyone wanting to run a Rogue Trader game without some background knowledge of the universe, GMs can't expect all of their players to have the same level of background in the setting. I know from experience that trying to explain the Warhammer 40,000 world to someone not familiar with it is a daunting task, so having things laid out in a logical order in a rulebook can really help.

This amount of detail has a downside, where having too much information can pad out your rules and make it hard to find the important rules when you need them. The Dungeons and Dragons books by Wizards of the Coast were good at avoiding this, while White Wolf's Storytelling system suffered from it. To mitigate this, Fantasy Flight offers a Game Masters Kit, which offers quick reference charts and tables (but will cost you an extra ten bucks on DriveThruRPG, or twenty for the physical object).

The Warhammer Roleplaying game is a d100-based system, which took some time for me to get used to. All skill rolls use percentile dice. If you roll equal to or under your skill, you succeed. If you roll above it, you fail. For every 10 points by which you roll under your skill, you get a "degree of success," and the same applies for "degrees of failure." What took me so long to wrap my head around is that, in a d20 system like D&D, you have a set difficulty for certain tasks, and your bonuses and penalties are applied to your roll. In a d100 system, your bonuses and penalties are applied to your skill, and then your roll is always between 1 and 100 against your adjusted skill total. Once I got the hang of that, the rules were pretty easy to follow.

I do have a few gripes, of course. The book does not have much as much art inside as I expected, and the quality of the art is pretty hit-or-miss. While I think that the cover image is stunning and inspires the sense of adventure and danger that the game strives for, a lot of the other art in the book looks like it was taken from other sources and does not quite fit the game. There are several pictures of soldiers in the Imperial Guard, for instance, even though the players never actually play as Imperial Guardsmen.

My other gripe is a more general one. Fantasy Flight Games split up the Warhammer 40,000 RPG into several stand-alone books that cover the same basic rules, but focusing on different groups of characters. This approach is similar to what White Wolf did with the old World of Darkness, and Fantasy Flight is adopting the same approach with its newer Star Wars RPG. In my opinion, this results in a lot of wasted space in each core rulebook for players who want to own multiple core books. If I were to buy both Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, I would be getting a lot of redundant information in both books about creating characters, using skills, fighting combat, etc. Worse, there are probably small differences in the rules since the books were released over a series of years. I would prefer it if Fantasy Flight Games took the approach White Wolf adopted with their new World of Darkness, where they have a single, generic rulebook that covers the basic rules, and then the various core books only need to cover what makes them unique, like Vampire: the Requiem covering rules for playing vampires.

All in all, it looks like a fun game to play, and even if I never get to actually roll them bones with a crew of bloodthirsty space pirates, I'm glad I bought the rulebook and have had a blast reading it!

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